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Europe

Greece mulls demands for war reparations

While the topic of war reparations is a closed matter to Germans, many Greeks hope to be repaid for damages caused during the Nazi era. The Greek Finance Ministry has established an expert group to look into the issue.

Greece is evaluating asking Germany for reparations for the destruction of Greek villages and towns as well as for Nazi crimes during World War II and for the repayment of a loan worth billions of dollars the Bank of Greece was forced to make to Germany in 1942 and which has not been repaid.

A working group has been set up and the government has been going through the state archives for relevant documents, according to Deputy Finance Minister Christos Staikouras. Initial results should be available by the end of the year. Many observers, including those in Greece, have wondered if potential demands for reparations, almost 70 years after the war, are still justified.

Stelios Perakis a professor of international law at Panteion University in Athens, has called for reparations to be paid as soon as possible. These claims have not been made due to the international treaty situation after the war, but this, he said, in no way means Greece has forfeited its rights.

"The London Agreement of 1953 allows for such payments to be deferred until the final settlement of the reparations issue - that is the German question,” Perakis said. "This came about in 1990 with the Two-plus-Four Agreement, which is not called a peace treaty, but serves precisely the same function because it restores Germany’s full sovereignty."

In November 1995, Greece reminded the Germans of the reparations, but its efforts were unanswered. There were only political statements indicating that the question had lost its legitimacy, Perakis said.

Actors impersonating German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former German dictator Adolf Hitler stand in front of demonstrators holding up banners and a Nazi flag during a during a protest outside the German embassy in the Greek capital Athens (Foto:Kostas Tsironis/AP/dapd)

Athens protest depicts Chanceller Merkel as Nazi

Fear of foreign policy damage

Greek survivors of Nazi massacres and family members of war victims did not expect the government to aggressively pursue their interests - probably out of fear of damaging its foreign policy. Many filed suits in Greek courts. The survivors of a massacre in the village of Distomo were awarded 30 million euros in damages, but a warrant against the German treasury was blocked with the intervention of the Greek minister of justice.

Something similar happened in Italy where the claims in a suit by the survivors of the victims of a Nazi massacre in Civitella in Tuscany were upheld in local courts. Then, Germany invoked the principle of state immunity and complained to the International Court of Justice. In the proceedings, Greece intervened as a non-contending party. Perakis represented Greek interests in The Hague and argued against granting absolute immunity. The court, however, ruled in favor of Germany.

"It was not a good decision, the principle of absolute immunity dates back to the 19th century, but today we have gone beyond it, especially in cases of war massacres and crimes against humanity," he said.

But the court also highlighted the significance of negotiations between the two countries, which means the reparations issue is not off the table, he added.

A file photo reportedly taken on 10 June 1944 by an anonymous German soldier shows German occupation troops in the ransacked south-central Greek town of Distomo

Nazi massacres in 1944 in the village of Distomo

Greek money for German war

From Greek point of view is also the repayment of an interest-free forced loan that the Bank of Greece was forced to make in 1942 and which triggered runaway inflation in occupied Greece. The money financed the Nazi regime's occupation costs, as well as various military operations in North Africa.

"Legally, the forced loan is easier to justify than the demands for reparations because no one doubts that a contract for this loan was drawn up," Perakis said, adding that Hitler recognized the debt and started to repay it, but when the war ended a considerable sum remained open.

After the war, Greece’s reparations claims totaled $7.5 billion, including the forced loan. Perakis would not comment on specific sums for possible repartitions, referring the matter to the newly established working group in the Greek Treasury.

Empty coffers and public pressure

Some suspect a connection to the efforts of the Greek government to restructure its budget. Many left and right-wing parliamentarians want to establish such a connection. Public opinion should not be underestimated. Athens lawyer Stefanos Foutrounidis and two other plaintiffs recently sued the government for not providing information about Greek repayment claims on the forced loan.

German troops pass some people from a local village, some give the Nazi salute, during the occupation of Greece by German forces

German troops going through a Greek village during the occupation

"During a parliamentary request in 2012 in the Greek Parliament, the ministry of finance declared that the evidence had been lost,” he said. “Because the loss of documents is a criminal offense, we filed charges against all political and administrative leaders as Greek law allows."

The leaders named included the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank. As a result, the finance minister set up a three-member working group to gather all the relevant information. In early September, Staikouras confirmed in parliament that the current case had triggered the establishment of the expert group. Foutrounidis said he plans to continue fighting for the victims and their families despite, or perhaps because of, the International Court’s recent decision favoring Germany.

"This ruling has put the reparations issue on ice and rejected the enforcement of earlier judgments against Germany," he said.

While lawsuits from individuals are evidently no longer allowed. states are still permitted to have their claims heard in court.

"Together with the Greek association of victims of the occupation, we will collect as many complaints as possible and forward them to the country’s foreign ministry," he said.

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